The 12 pm Sunday game in the Championship saw play-off challengers Swansea take on mid-table Sheffield Wednesday. However, it is important to note that Sheffield Wednesday are at risk of being deducted 12 points in the near future due to an ongoing EFL hearing concerning potential financial misconduct. This would see them drop into the relegation zone and five points from safety.
Since the restart, both teams had experienced equally inconsistent form with a draw, a win, and a loss. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics and key moments that decided the fate of this Championship clash. Perhaps the most vital part of this analysis is the half-time adjustments made by Swansea manager Steve Cooper, which changed the pattern of the game and secured a win for his team to keep their play-off dreams alive.
Before going into the analysis, it is noteworthy to look at the expected goals data for this clash. The xG suggested that Swansea were the worthy winners with an xG of 1.98, in comparison to Sheffield Wednesday’s inferior 1.45. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the xG data is Swansea’s first-half performance. Their xG for their first period was 0.00, whereas Wednesday’s was 0.98, highlighting their dominance. The turnaround from Swansea to enjoy an xG of 1.98 for the second half is a credit to the Swansea’s tactical changes at the break.
Swansea lined up in a flexible 3-4-1-2, to counteract the three-at-the-back system used by Wednesday manager Garry Monk. However, it caused major problems for Swansea in the first half, especially as it required Routledge to play as a wing-back, which was not natural for him and led to a flurry of attacks down the Swans’ left-hand side throughout the first period.
In terms of changes in personnel, Swansea made four changes to their lineup with Connor Roberts, Wayne Routledge, Jay Fulton, and Marc Guehi coming in. This was a major shakeup to the Swansea back line, with their usual centre-half pairing of Ben Wilmot and Ben Cabango out with injuries. Ultimately, this meant that Kyle Naughton had to occupy the centre-back role, which caused problems at times but overall, he was able to do a good job in an unnatural position.
Sheffield Wednesday went with a 3-1-4-2 formation with Barry Bannan occupying the role as the deep-lying playmaker. This formation has been popular for the Owls since the restart, with the use of wing-backs a key tool in this new system. The wing-backs for this game were Jacob Murphy and Adam Reach with the talented wide man Kadeem Harris left on the bench for the first time since football’s return.
Wednesday made three changes to their side, with the aforementioned Harris exiting the starting lineup alongside Moses Odubajo and Jordan Rhodes. Julian Börner, Kieran Lee, and Alessio Da Cruz benefitted, gaining starts in a tightly contested match.
Murphy exploits the space on the right wing
Sheffield Wednesday dominated the first half and were likely frustrated that they didn’t make use of their superiority. The key player for Wednesday in the first half was undoubtedly Murphy, as he was constantly given space to roam on the right wing. This was a result of Jake Bidwell’s extremely narrow defensive positioning (he usually plays in a full-back position) and Routledge’s failure to track back and support Bidwell, who frequently became isolated.
As already mentioned, Swansea’s system was unfamiliar to the group of players as they usually play a 4-2-3-1, a formation they have employed 32 times out of 41 this season. In fact, this was the first time they had opted for a three-at-the-back system in this campaign. The images below epitomise Swansea’s first-half problems as not only was Bannan allowed too much time on the ball to distribute it, but Bidwell was also far too narrow as a left centre-back, particularly with the threat of Murphy out wide.
The ineffectiveness of Swansea’s double pivot and Gallagher’s unsuccessful man-marking of Bannan led to him dictating the first half. Bannan made three key passes and had a pass accuracy of 90%, which was the second-highest success rate for players that started the game. Subsequently, he was able to penetrate the space on the left-hand side of Swansea’s defence, which was the glaring weakness for the Swans in the first half.
Bidwell was not helped by Routledge, who was forced to play in the left wing-back position that was clearly unnatural for a player who is largely forward-thinking. Ultimately, this led to poor defensive positioning and left Cooper’s side in severe trouble down their left-hand side on defensive transitions. Routledge is a long way out of position defensively in the first frame, which became a growing problem as the half developed. The position of Routledge in the second frame below clearly demonstrates how stretched the Swansea defence was.
Also, the isolation of Bidwell, who is not known for his pace, became an issue as Murphy could run at him unopposed with runners flooding the box centrally. If it was not for Murphy’s lacklustre decision-making in the final third, then the Swans could have easily found themselves a goal down. Murphy’s crossing accuracy was only 38%, with a dribbling success rate of 83% highlighting the flaws in his game when it comes to the final product.
Wednesday create overloads
Sheffield Wednesday constantly attacked down the right-hand side as the half grew on and began to create overloads to further assert their dominance. Da Cruz, who was the right striker for Wednesday, began to drift wide and at times overlapped Murphy with Routledge still not tracking back to support Bidwell.
Here you can see an example of Wednesday creating wide overloads. Near the end of the half, Murphy often cut in like this and acted as an inverted winger, while Da Cruz made the overlapping runs. This caused further problems for the Swansea backline, but again Sheffield Wednesday’s final ball left something to be desired. They were unable to find the in-form Connor Wickham with crosses and pull-backs on numerous occasions and as a result, were unable to capitalise on Swansea’s lacklustre first-half performance. This proved costly as Cooper’s second-half adjustments nullified this threat, and provided Swansea with a greater attacking thrust, helping drastically swing the momentum of the match.
In fact, all five crosses attempted by Wednesday in the first half were unsuccessful showing the lack of service Wickham was given, even though they often found themselves in promising positions. The image below shows this:
Swansea tighten up defensively
Swansea’s most notable half-time tactical change was the increased width and depth of their defending, especially on their troubled left-hand side. Bidwell and Routledge’s defensive shape became much more structured, and an increase in communication to reduce the space previously allowed to Murphy was significant in their improvement.
In this frame, Da Cruz has picked up the ball from a throw-in from Murphy on the right-hand side. The major difference in Swansea’s shape is the wider and deeper positioning of Bidwell, but also Routledge who began to take on greater defensive responsibilities.
Ultimately, this resulted in Routledge committing a foul on Da Cruz, but the Swans were clearly starting to find a defensive formula that was more effective in stopping Murphy and Da Cruz. In fact, another notable aspect of the frame is how tight Routledge is on the Wednesday striker, which was characteristic of his defending in the second half. Routledge would act as more of a natural wing-back and press the winger intently, while Bidwell dropped deeper and wider to pick up the pieces if Routledge’s press was unsuccessful.
Cooper changes to four-at-the-back
As Routledge naturally tired in the second half, Cooper decided to take him off and replace him with the returning Mike Van der Hoorn who was coming back from an injury. Van der Hoorn is an out-and-out centre-back, and therefore Cooper decided to change the formation to the traditional 4-2-3-1, with the Swans now 1-0 up and looking to see out the match. This proved another masterstroke as Bidwell could drift wider and tighter to the Wednesday wingers, while on-loan Chelsea defender Guehi would cover the central areas.
The image above perfectly demonstrates the effectiveness of this change from Cooper. This is because the first half faults were being clearly addressed and stopped the supply line of Bannan and Murphy, which had helped Wednesday dominate the first period.
Bannan’s pass out to the right-wing has been tracked efficiently by Bidwell in the frame above, who was now occupying the left-back position. This was due to the necessity to put pressure on, and man-mark the dangerous Murphy in his new role. Guehi was a big factor in this as his positioning was not only central, but also he was ready to support Bidwell if Murphy was to get the better of the defender. The cover of Guehi in central areas proved equally as important as Bidwell’s more proactive role in stopping Murphy in the second half.
Gallagher and co begin to find the half-spaces
Swansea undoubtedly built from the back in the second half, yet their attacking movement and clever runs were vital in scoring the two goals that wrapped up the three points. A key part of this was finding pockets in the half-spaces, which not only allowed flair players like Gallagher and Grimes to enjoy greater time on the ball, but also dragged Wednesday’s central defenders out of position and, in turn, created space in behind.
This was drastically different from the first half where the likes of Gallagher were effectively marked and given limited space to penetrate the Wednesday backline. As a result of this, the game was played in front of the Owls’ defence and Swansea were only able to muster a single shot and none on target.
The key difference in the second half can be seen in the frame above. Gallagher has drifted into the half-space and committed two of Wednesday’s central defenders in the back three. In this instance, Iorfa is the defender going towards the ball and in turn leaving large spaces in behind the backline.
On this occasion, Gallagher was unable to pick out the ongoing run from Brewster. However, this was a common theme of the second half with the Wednesday defence becoming increasingly stretched and liable to through balls, unlike the first half.
Swansea’s emphasis on finding half-spaces centrally was a common theme, with a staggering 76% of their attacks based in the middle zone of the pitch. Furthermore, the xG for chances that occurred in the middle zone was 1.50, showing the importance of Gallagher and the strikers in building the Swans’ attacks.
The task facing Iorfa became increasingly difficult as the half grew on, especially as Wednesday were looking for late goals after Swansea’s early double. As already mentioned, Gallagher was beginning to find the half-spaces regularly and with the space given to him, he could frequently play balls in behind. The run Gallagher made in the frame below was slightly different as Iorfa was becoming wary of his movement and space in between the lines.
In the frame above, Naughton had received the ball at right-back and to stop the space given to Gallagher, Iorfa stepped up and decided to stay tight to the midfielder. This led to the same issue as before because it left large spaces in behind for the pacey Brewster to attack once more.
Naughton played a through ball to Brewster which left him through on goal, but the young striker on loan from Liverpool hit the ball into the side netting. However, the threat of Gallagher was so much that he was attracting Iorfa with and without the ball, which created the problem of the ball in behind the back three.
On the balance of xG, Swansea were deserved 2-1 winners in the end. Their first-half performance was extremely poor, and Sheffield Wednesday were tactically superior, especially with the use of Bannan and space on the right wing to create chances. However, their decision-making in the first half when they were the dominant team was largely ineffective and allowed Swansea to go in on level terms.
Steve Cooper used the break to make tactical adjustments that changed the course of the game. The modified defensive positioning of Bidwell and Routledge provided Murphy and Da Cruz with much less space on the right wing. Also, they changed to their familiar four-at-the-back system which provided more defensive stability and helped the Swans grow into the game.
In addition to this, the Swansea midfielders (most notably Gallagher) began to create new problems for the Wednesday backline by occupying the half-spaces and dragging the centre-backs out of position. These factors led to a comfortable second half for Swansea, where they were able to keep their playoff ambitions alive.
As for Sheffield Wednesday, the result leaves them in mid-table, but the verdict over their potential points deduction will likely be heard this week, so the repercussions of this result could prove to be more damaging than first thought.